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Technology.

24 September 2021

Best running headphones for 2021

Improve your performance with a pair of headphones that are light, comfortable and make your running playlist sound fantastic.
Oliver Trebilcock
Headphones-for-running

Listening to some motivational tunes can make exercise a far more enjoyable experience. However, if you don’t have the right pair of headphones for the job, your music could end up being more of a hindrance than a help.

The wrong pair might not fit securely in your ears as you move about, or be uncomfortable, forcing you to constantly readjust them. By contrast, the best sports headphones stay firmly and comfortably in your ears and make music sound great. 

Some also have handy features, such as a sweat-resistant or water-resistant design. Keep reading to find out which running headphones are right for you.


Whatever you want to use them for, find out more about what makes a great pair of headphones in our guide on how to buy the best headphones.


Sports headphones: how to get a good fit

Headphones for running and other sports need to be comfortable and fit securely. However, most headphones aren't specifically designed for vigorous activity, so it can be hard to know if they'll have a secure enough fit for exercise.

That’s where our headphones tests come in. We use a five-member professional panel with a range of ear shapes and sizes. For every pair of headphones we test, we ask our experts to assess how secure the headphones are with their heads upright, tilted to both sides, and tilted forwards and backwards. 

This means you'll know whether the headphones have a secure enough fit for exercise.

Some headphones are specifically designed for sport - these have features to keep them more secure in your ears, compared with everyday models. Typically these are in-ear headphones. 

There are three main types:

  • In-ear sports headphones with a concealed rubber ‘wing’ that sits in the folds of each ear to provide extra grip. These are the most popular type.
  • Ear-hook models that loop round the outsides of your ears to help keep the headphones from falling out. These are more secure but many people find them less comfortable, especially for longer sessions.
  • In-ear sports headphones with a neckband can provide even more stability. They're often more comfortable than ear-hook models, although in looser designs the neckband can flap about during activity. They provide peace of mind, as the earpiece remains attached if it falls out of your ear.

Looking to mix up your exercise regime with some new ways to work out from home? Take a look at our guide on how to set up a home gym


Best headphones for running

We’ve rounded up our top headphones for sport and exercise in the table below so you can focus your efforts on that workout.

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  • 71%
    £24.75

    These wired headphones prove it's possible to deliver superb sound at an affordable price. Music and speech sound great through these headphones, with punchy pop and clear vocals. They also keep sound leakage to a minimum, so you shouldn't get too many disapproving looks on your morning commute.

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  • 68%
    £169.00

    These truly wireless headphones are specifically designed for sports and exercise, with special eartips that aim to give you an extra secure fit in your ears. They’re also sweat and weather resistant. The sound quality is great, with a lovely drive and beat that will help keep you motivated. The fit is on the tighter side, but this is good while you’re working out. The battery lasts for five hours between top-ups from the charging case.

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  • 67%
    £157.00

    These are certainly worth a look even though they don’t quite get a Best Buy. If you’re not a fan of the bulk, fit or short battery lives of most truly wireless headphones, this corded wireless in-ear pair could be the ideal one for you. The earpieces are small and light, and they have a lovely premium well-made build quality well above the norm that should help them to last. They last almost nine hours per charge, and the sound is pleasant, natural and clear.

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  • 65%
    £35.98

    This style of headphones doesn't tend to do well in our testing, but this pair is an exception. They're comfortable and battery life is sufficient for this type of headphones. Sound quality isn't good enough to be a Best Buy, but it's reasonable. Many will like the small earpieces and lightweight design.

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  • 61%
    £159.99

    These are aimed at those who enjoy an active lifestyle and come from sports headphones specialist Jaybird. They feature ear fins to provide extra stability during vigorous activities and are fully waterproof, so you don’t have to worry about sweat or rain. Sound quality is good for sports headphones and will keep you in the zone during your workout, while the fit is comfortable and secure.

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Pricing and recommendations correct as of September 2021.

Not found the pair for you? Browse all of our headphone reviews.

Sports headphones to avoid

As well as the sterling examples we've picked out in the table above, we've seen plenty of supposedly exercise-friendly headphones that did terribly in our tests. Some were so bad they'd ruin your workout. 

The worst offenders are so uncomfortable that you'll be in pain before you're even making any gains, and their sound quality is so bad your ears will be getting tired before your muscles. 

Don't waste your money on a poor pair of headphones. We've exposed some of the worst models you should definitely avoid in the table below. 

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  • 28%
    £100.00

    These wireless headphones look like they've been lifted from a sci-fi film set and the way they deliver music is pretty far out too. Rather than earbuds these headphones actually send the sound through your cheekbones. Unfortunately, though, they seem to do the job very poorly indeed. Steer clear.

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  • 44%
    £199.00

    All the features in the world mean nothing when a pair of headphones falls flat on the fundamentals. The sound quality disappoints, with some frequencies missing and background hiss, and it's hard to get an acoustic seal. They're also uncomfortable to wear and fiddly to use – horrendous for the price. There are plenty of superior sports headphones – these are a clear Don’t Buy.

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  • 45%
    £229.00

    You’d expect these expensive to be near flawless, but you’d be mistaken. Their active noise cancelling is shockingly ineffective. They also have an unreliable and often uncomfortable fit, and the sound quality suffers as a result. Plus, they’re surprisingly light on features considering the price. These would be a seriously costly mistake to buy.

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Should I buy bone conduction headphones?

Aftershokz Trekz Titanium bone conduction headphones

Unlike traditional headphones, bone conduction headphones don't cover your ears at all. Instead, they have pads that rest on the sides of your head just in front of your ear, and these pads are held in place and connected to each other by a neckband or headband. 

The pads produce very small vibrations that transmit sound directly through your skull to your inner ear. 

They’re marketed for running and cycling, with the main benefit being that your ears aren’t obstructed from hearing your surroundings (we still wouldn’t recommend using headphones for road cycling, though).

We’ve tested bone conduction headphones from the most popular headphones brand Aftershokz. So how does the sound quality of bone conduction headphones compare to normal headphones? 

For the verdicts from our expert lab and professional listening panel, see our:

Using bone conduction headphones for running

As well as putting these headphones through our lab tests, we also enlisted two volunteer regular runners to try out the Aftershokz OpenMove and Aeropex headphones to see what they thought of them while running and cycling off-road.

Find out their verdicts in the table below. 

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Which bone conduction headphones should I buy?

While you probably don’t need stellar sound quality for sports, of the models we tested, one volunteer in particular didn’t find the sound quality made enough of their music to be sufficiently motivating, but said it was OK for podcasts.

We wouldn’t recommend wearing headphones cycling on roads - but for offroad cycling, one volunteer noted that at high speeds (20mph+) the noise of the wind overwhelms your music. You also need to put these on before your helmet, and the combination of the two can be uncomfortable to wear.

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Best extra sports headphones features

Wireless or wired sports headphones?

Wireless headphones are increasingly popular, not least because of the lack of tangle-prone wires. However, you’ll have to remember to keep them charged to avoid being left in silence mid-run. If you're using an old MP3 player, it will need Bluetooth otherwise your wireless headphones won't work.

With wireless headphones, you'll benefit from increased freedom of movement. It can be incredibly annoying to have a cable trailing around and catching on your clothes as you run, especially if it’s an intense workout. 

On some headphones, cables rubbing and brushing against you can also really ruin the sound of your music. This is because vibrations are carried through the cable to your ear – a wireless model won’t be susceptible to this.

Looking for a new way to store your phone or keys when running? Read our guide on the best running armbands and phone holders

Good sound quality

You probably won't need top-of-the-range sound for your workout, but you don't want your music to sound awful, either. Most importantly, you'll need the headphones to have a good acoustic seal so you can hear your music over your activities and block out some unwanted background noise. 

Otherwise you run the risk of having to turn it up too loud (see our guide on how to protect your hearing). 

You certainly want to avoid the scratchy, flat sound of the worst pairs; engaging, driven sound will help inspire you to move.

Fitness-tracking sports headphones

Headphones with fitness-tracking features are rare, but some do exist. 

For example, the Jabra Elite Sport Wireless headphones give you motivational tips during your workout. However, you'll find your options are very limited. Generally, combining a smartwatch or fitness tracker with sports headphones is a more common, flexible and fully featured approach.

Interested to find out how these wearable gadgets can help keep you motivated? Read our guides on: 

IP ratings: waterproof and sweatproof sports headphones

While most headphones aren't fully waterproof, many now claim some level of water resistance. Manufacturers commonly advertise what is known as an IP (ingress protection) rating, which tells you exactly how water resistant they are (as tested by the manufacturer). 

Technically, IP ratings claim protection from water, rather than sweat. Although in practice you'd expect sports headphones that are water resistant to also offer sweat protection.  

The IP rating also tells you whether headphones offer protection against dust – useful if you like to take your headphones to the beach or frequently drop them in the park.

Ratings include two digits after the 'IP':

  • The first digit indicates protection from dust and other small solid particles. If headphone manufacturers haven't tested for dust protection, this is indicated by an ‘X’ in the IP rating where the first number would otherwise be
  • The second digit is the more important one: it tells you the level of water resistance. The higher the number, the greater the protection.

We’ve summarised some of the most common IP rating claims from headphone manufacturers below, and what they mean:

IPX4

Protection from splashes of water. This is the most common rating and generally considered sufficient to protect against a bit of drizzle, for example. Many dedicated sports headphones will offer this rating.

IPX5

Protection from jets of water - from a garden hose, for example.

IP55

The same water resistance as IPX5, but these headphones are also dust-protected. You’ll only ever see a ‘5’ or ‘6’ for dust protection on headphones. 5 means small amounts of dust may enter, but not enough to impact the function of the headphones.

IPX7

For properly waterproof headphones, look for a second digit of 7 or 8. IPX7 means the headphones can be fully immersed to a depth of up to one metre in water. The manufacturer will state how long this is for – a typical time would be up to 30 minutes.

IP67

The same water resistance as IPX7, but this also means the headphones are fully dust tight, meaning no dust should enter. This is a good choice if you regularly use your headphones on the beach.

IPX8

This is the highest waterproof IP rating on the scale. The headphones can be immersed in water to depths beyond one metre, and the manufacturer will state the maximum depth and time.

IPX5/8

This is rare and only seen on headphones designed for swimming. It includes separate ratings for fresh and salt water. In this case, the headphones have been tested only for water resistance in fresh water conditions (the ‘5’ rating). However, they have been tested to depths beyond one metre in salt water, so are in fact fully waterproof. The manufacturer will state the maximum depth and time.

Treat IP ratings with a pinch of salt

IP ratings are claims by the manufacturer. The tests are done with stationary headphones in a lab; so in real life, you shouldn’t test their limits.

It’s also very easy to misunderstand IP ratings and risk damaging your headphones. Water resistance measures are primarily designed to offer protection from accidents – dropping your headphones in the washing up bowl, for example. 

You shouldn't deliberately submerge your headphones in water, and a waterproof IP rating does not mean the headphones are suitable for swimming. Dedicated swimming headphones are available, but very rare – they need built-in memory so you don't need your smartphone with you.

Water resistance is a test for water only – so not tea, lemonade or whatever else you spill on your headphones. 

If a pair of headphones don't live up to promises, you may have a right to complain to the retailer under the Consumer Rights Act, which protects consumers against goods that are 'not as described'.

Some headphones designed for sports and exercise won’t advertise any IP rating – manufacturers aren’t obligated to do so. Even with sports headphones, if the manufacturer makes no claim about water resistance, don’t assume it exists.

For more expert tips on getting the perfect pair of headphones, go to how to buy the best headphones.